Tuesday, December 14, 2010


R-2 D-2 from the film 'Star Wars'
Importance of Open Source and Open Format for better E-Governance
(Summary: This talk explains the importance of open source and open format. And why their use is crucial in e-governace and e-society.
It was delivered by Justice Yatindra Singh in the National Conference on 'E-Government & E-Society' on 11-12 December 2010 at Allahabad by the Computer Society of India, Allahabad Chapter.
A pdf format of this article may be downloaded from here.)

नमस्ते, and a very good afternoon to all of you.

I am proud to say that our website says,
'Allahabad High Court has taken a policy decision to work in Open Source Software and use open standards

We have chosen Linux, Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice.org softwares as they are Open Source softwares. Our Website is also best viewed in Firefox.'

Ours is a success story of open source applications and my other Brother judges, who are at present concerned with Computer committee of the court will tell you about it . However the process of shifting over to open source and open format was done at the time when I was associated with the computer committee of the court and obviously I was requested to speak about their relevance in e-governance and e-society.

But what the heck, the fifth avtaar (reincarnation) of God Visnu (see Endnote-1), Vaman (see Endnote-2) doing out here. If he is to be born again then who would be the demon king Bali in the e-society, from whose clutches Vaman would free us?

And what is this robot doing out here—isn't he Artoo-Dtoo (R2-D2) from 'Star Wars'.  Oh, what a confusion? 

Don't worry, just sit, relax, and enjoy. I will connect them up.

The beginning of the last century witnessed the emergence of a semi-clad Indian, referred to as 'half naked Fakir' by Winston Churchill. His philosophy was,
'Means are more important than the end: it is only with the right means that the desired end will follow.'
To the charge that 'means are after all means', he would say, ‘means are, after all, everything’. His name was Mohandas Karamchandra Gandhi – known to the World as Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation.

Gandhi's philosophy is deep rooted in law too. Lord Denning, one of the greatest judge of 20th century, in R Vs IRC Exparte Rossminster Ltd 1979 (3) All ELR 385 held,
‘But it is fundamental in our law that the means that are adopted ... should be lawful means. A good end does not justify bad means.'  (See Endnote-1 also)

In a society based on E-governance,
  • The end is dissemination, communication, and retrieval of information; and
  • The means are, how to achieve it, implement it; the kinds of software to use, the kinds of standards to adopt, the kind of formats to employ?

The software consists of two parts
  • Source code; and
  • Object code.
Nowadays, computer programmes are written in high level computer languages using compact English words. This can be understood by humans and not by computers. This is known as the source code.

The languages also have a programme called compiler and with its help, source code is compiled into the language that computers can understand. This is called object code or machine code. This runs the computer or any application therein.

Protection - Object Code
There was some debate as to how the object code is protected but Article 11 of the TRIPS mandates its members to provide authors with the right to authorise or to prohibit commercial rental of at least computer programmes and cinematographic works. This has also been so provided under Section 14(b) of the Copyright Act and now in our country, as in almost all other countries in the world, the object code is protected as copyright.

Protection - Source code
Source code is a kind of description. Copyright lies in the description and source code of a computer programme—being description—is a literary work within the meaning of Copyright Act. If it is not published then it is protected as a trade secret. In case it is published it is protected as a copyright and it may also be protected as a patent.

Copylefted, Free, and Gpled software
Everyone is not using Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) to hoard rights in the software. Some are using them in such a way that no one is able to hoard them. Using copyright, they are doing a thing that is its opposite. It is for this reason it is called copylefting. This happens if software has the following conditions:
  1. The software is royalty  free and no fee is charged for the same;
  2. The source code is disclosed;
  3. There is freedom to modify the software; and
  4. Anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along similar freedom to others i.e. disclose the source code and permit further modification.

Copylefted software is also called free software as there is freedom to modify it. General public licence (GPL) contains  conditions that copylefts a software. Software, under a GPL licence, is also known as GPLed software.

Open Source Software (OSS)
The philosophy of copylefted/ free/GLed software  conveyed an anti-business message. Though it not so: it is merely a way of doing business. In the late 1990's, a group of free software enthusias got together in California and started a consortium – called Open Source Initiative (OSI). They also drafted ten guidelines and if the license or conditions under which the software has been released satisfies these guidlines then they called it Open Source Software (OSS). Among the  ten conditions, the three important ones are,
  1. The software is royalty  free and no fee is charged for the same;
  2. The source code is disclosed; and
  3. There is freedom to modify the software.

The guidelines do not contain the fourth condition of Free Software. Thus OSS is more comprehensive. All Copylefted/ free/GLed software is OSS but all OSS is not Copylefted/ free/GLed software. The sphere of OSS is bigger than Copylefted/  free/ GLed software.

Anyone can copy, distribute or modify OSS. No one infringes copyright by merely using or modifying it. This does not mean that it has no copyright. There is copyright in OSS. In fact, OSS is copylefted by using copyright. Anyone who uses OSS contrary to the conditions governing the license, not only breaches the contract but also infringes the copyright. This has also been so held by the US Court of Appeals for the federal circuit in Robert Jcobson Vs Matthew Katzer on 13. 8 2008.

Advantages of OSS
  1. No Copyright infringment in using or modifying it:  There is copyright in the OSS. In fact, OSS is copylefted by using copyright. However in terms of the license conditions, there is no  copyright infringment in merely using or modifying it. Copyright infingement due to unauthorised use is a global issue and adopting OSS will obviate this aspect of it.
  2. Lesser cost: OSS is royaltee free; it does not cost anything. The only cost is for services or support for the same. Utilising OSS will reduce the cost of any project. The cost reduction has an impact on the proprietary software too. In order to be competitive, their cost is being reduced.
  3. Service sector: Due to historical reason, our English and Maths have always been a plus point. These subjects are necessary for providing services in the IT sector. Adoptions of OSS may open new job opportunities in the service sector.
  4. Customise software: Software can be modified if source code is disclosed and there is permission to modify the same. In OSS, source code is disclosed and there is permission to modify the software. This permits everyone to participate in the software movement and also provides opportunity to everyone to customise software. Today, OSS is not only available in our national language but also in almost all regional languages; its adoption offers us opportunity to take IT movement to the grass root level.
  5. Avoids IPR:  It is possible to have IPR in the modified software created from OSS but the authors of any OSS do not claim any IPR in the OSS in anyone using and modifying it  (though there are some conditions). This is clear from the fact that they permit everyone to use/ modify/ distribute it without any royalty. This not only leads to reduction in the IT cost but avoids future conflicts in IPR area. 
  6. Stable: Virus is nothing but a computer programm which effects any other computer programme or computer data. In OSS there can be viruses however there have been only a few viruses in OSS. This is because its source code is open/ published. Experts say that it is safe and provides stable environment. This is also strengthened by the fact that Apache (an OSS) web servers are the most popular ones.
  7. Different licenses: There are many licenses that are certified by OSI. This creates some difficulties but different licenses have their advantages too. They can be adopted for different business models:
  • GPL is viral: a business model centered around programming and support services should be adopted.
  • BSD type licenses are at the other end: they permit creation of proprietary software. The Macintosh Operating System (a proprietary software) is partly based on BSD licensed code. The other licenses lie between these two and may be chosen by the companies/software developers according to their need.

Let me explain the advantages of open source with the help of a story from 'Panchtantra': this has common thread in all cultures; it is there in Aesop's fables too. It is a story of a hare and a tortoise.

The Tortoise and the Hare
One day, the hare and the tortoise decided to race against each other. The hare obviously took the lead; he thought of relaxing and went off to sleep. The tortoise, walking slowly but steadily, overtook the hare and won the race. The moral is,
'Slow but steady wins the race'.
In recent time, some new chapters have been added.

The hare was perturbed by the defeat. He asked the tortoise to race again. This time he did not take rest and won the race easily. The moral is,
'It is better to be fast and reliable'.
But, this is not the end of the story.

After some days, the tortoise asked the hare to race once again but with a condition that the course will be chosen by him. The hare, who was confident of his victory, gave him a free hand. This time the course included a river. The hare ran up to the river and then stopped. The tortoise came and swam across the river to win the race. The moral is,
'Every one has weak and strong points – play on your strong side.'
However, the story still does not end here.

After some days, the tortoise and the hare repeated the race over the same course but the rules were changed. This time they decided run it as a team. On the ground, the hare carried the tortoise on his back and on the river, the tortoise carried the hare on his back. The result was that both of them reached the destination quickly, saved time and enjoyed the race too. The moral is,
'It is best to consolidate everyone's strong points'.
Formats are particular way of encoding or a method of storing information so that a computer programme or a device may, understand, reproduce, and,  if the need be, render it for modifications.  

Formats may be proprietary. They could be,
  • Secret and protected as a trade secret; or
  • Published and yet protected as a patent (as was the gif format for images).
This is not true for open formats. They are,
  1. Documented and published - sufficient to implement them in any computer programme or device.
  2. Made available irrevocably to everyone without any royalty or fee.
  3. Maintained by a neutral body, where decisions are taken with consensus or majority thus catering to the needs of all.

Advantages of Open Format
Open formats, not only avoid monopoly but encourage healthy competition. Information technology has best flourished in the open formats/ standards: the Internet, the web, the protocol transfer are all based on open formats/ standards. Apart from other advantages,
  1. There is no fear of patents or licensing;
  2. Open source software supporting ODF exists for every operating system; they work across the operating systems. 
  3. The files can never be lost as they will always be accessible.
  4. They can be implemented in any software making the users true owners of their files.

Let me explain the importance of open format with the help of another story—this time a science fiction by Jayant V. Narlikar. He is a leading Astrophysicist in the word. He has worked with Fred Hoyle and like him writes science fiction. He has written a novel by the name of 'The Return of Vaman'.

The Return of Vaman
The novel revolves around three characters: an archeologist, a physicist, and a computer scientist. The physicist wanted to experiment with gravity and a deep hole was being dug. In the process, the team came across a plaque first  and then a cube. They could neither understand the script written on the plaque nor the figures on the cube. It was a perfect cube of unknown substance. They knew that it came from some advanced civilisation. They decided to open the cube but could not make head or tail out of it.

There was a figure on the cube showing two elephants pulling the cube in the opposite direction without any success. They were reminded of an experiment done in the seventeenth century by the German scientist Otto Von Guericke in Magdeburg Germany.  He had joined the two copper hemispheres of 51 cm diameter and pumped the air outside. Thereafter 8 horses on each side could not pull them apart.  The team realised that the air from the cube has been removed.  A thin hole was drilled, the air entered inside, and the cube opened instantly.

It was a time capsule, informing about the advance civilisation that existed twenty thousand years ago. There was no indication as to how it came to an end or what happened to it. The time capsule also informed them how to make an advanced computer. They make it and name it 'Guru'—the teacher.

Andrew from film 'Bicentenial Man'
'Guru' tells them how to make a meter high advance Robot. This robot is like the robot 'Andrew' (starring Robin Williams) in the science fiction film  'Bicentennial Man' (based on the story 'The Bicentennial Man' and the novel 'The Positronic Man' written by Isaac Asimov). It is named 'Vaman' (वामन) after Hindu  mythological story.  Vaman, (like Andrew), is extremely advanced;  learnt quickly and is able to take independent decisons.  But his intentions are different. 'Vaman' keeps on requesting his creators to teach him how to replicate itself so that humanity may be served better. This was not being done. The team was observing caution as there was no trace of the advanced civilisation. A conspiracy was hatched: Vaman gets itself stolen by others on the promise that it will be taught replication.

The answer to the mystery, as to how that advanced civilisation perished, lay in the plaque that was also found. But no one could understand the script. It was only when the script was deciphered that the reason could be known—too many Vamans serving the humanity and what happens if they go on strike. Utopia, if there is one, is end of life. It became imperative to destroy the Vaman so that it may not replicate itself.

This is the broad plot of the novel but the reason that I narrated this story is,
In the physical world, the information lies in the script. Loose the ability to read the script: you loose the information.
In the digital world the information lies in the format. If the format is closed then the information may be lost foreever.
It is better to store information in open format: it is only then we can be sure of owning information.

Vaman mapping earth and heaven; third on Bali's head
In an e-society, hording of technology is the demon king Bali. Only open source and open format, like Vaman—the fifth incarnation of God Vishnu, can  concur it. They will not only save us from this menace but will also,
  • Consolidate our strong points;
  • Involve all for better e-governance; and
  • Make us master of our information.
In terms of Gandhi's philosophy, they are the good means; they are the key to the e-governaned e-society: they will lead us to the desired end. And when you think of e-governed e-sociiety then do consider impleting them in open source and open format.

Endnote-1: Hindu mythology talks about reincarnation of Gods. God Vishnu has ten important reincarnations, nine have already taken birth. Vaman was his fifth. The tenth and his last reincarnation Kalki, is supposed to take birth after 84 thousand years. With him, the cycle of Universe is predicted to end and a new cycle of creation and destruction is to begin.

Vaman asking three steps from demon king Bali
Endnote-2: Vaman was God Visnu's fifth reincarnation. The legend for this reincarnation is that demon King Bali concurred the Earth, Heavens and banished Indra from there. He in his fifth avtaar, Vamana freed the Earth from terror of demon Bali and restored Indra's authority over the heavens. God Vishnu disguised as short Brahmin that is why he was known as Vamana (it means dwarf), carrying a wooden umbrella requested three steps of land from King Bali to live in. He gave that promise, against the warning given by his Guru Sukracharya. Vamana, the Supreme God, then grew so huge that he could cover from heaven to earth, earth to lower worlds in two simple steps. King Bali unable to fulfil the promise of three paces of land to the Supreme God, offered his head for the third step. Vamana placed his foot on King Bali's head and gave him immortality for his benevolence.

Endnote-3:The US Supreme Court in TVA Vs Hill (57 L.Ed 2nd 117) stopped the construction of a dam over the Little Tennessee River. The reason was extinction of an endangered snail darter, a three-inch tannish coloured fish, found in the river. Traditionally Attorney General of US appears only once in his term. Cases are argued in the court by the Solicitor General. Griffin B Bell, the then Attorney General, had chosen to appear in this case. He showed the fish in the court. According to him, the dam was completed and only for this three-inch fish the doors of the dam could not be closed. The congress had to amend the law to get over the judgement. Snail darters, which had previously lived only on the Little Tennessee River, were transplanted to the Hiwassee River. It was only then they could complete the constructions. The court while stopping the construction quoted the following passage of Bolds (A man for all seasons Act I Page 147) with approval.
‘The law Roper the law I know what’s legal not what’s right And will stick to what’s legal- I am not God. The currents and endless of rights and wrong which you find such plain sailing. I cannot navigate I am not a voyager. I am a forester in the thickness of law-what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil. And when the last law was down and Devil turned around on you, where would you hide, Roper the laws all being flat. This country’s planned thick with the laws from coast to coast-Man’s law not God's and if you cut them down-Do you really think you can stand upright in the winds that would blow then-Yes I would give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.'

Endnote-4: The second, third, fifth and sixth pictures are from Wikipedia.   

Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments:

Post a Comment

STEPHEN HAWKING: Courage personified

Stephen Hawking was one of the greatest Astrophysicists of all times. He died early morning today on 14th March 2018 at the age of 76. Th...